Until last year, sometime Danielson Famile member Sufjan Stevens was a well-kept indie-rock secret, quietly recording and releasing solo albums, enjoying acclaim from a limited number of rock aficionados and Danielson fans. But the release of last year’s Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State has widened Stevens’ fan base considerably, and earned him a fair amount of hipster cred. Calling it a “frost-bound tone poem,” Pitchfork Media named Michigan the third best album of 2003.
The moving, strange, intricately layered folk-pop record was conceived as the first installment of a series of 50 recordings—one for each state of the Union. So why, then, has Stevens just put out a beautifully spooky folk album entitled Seven Swans, which includes nary a mention of any of the 49 remaining states? RELEVANT emailed Stevens and found out the answer to that question, as well as a few others.
[RELEVANT magazine:] How do you feel about the way Seven Swans has turned out? How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it?
[Sufjan Stevens:] I’m so happy with the way this record has turned out. It’s folk music. It’s theater music. It’s processional music. It’s medieval music. But really, is it my job to make descriptions? A musician’s attempt to summarize his or her work leads to all this prescriptive chatter, or what I call the Modifier’s Madness. A lot of adjectives working overtime. This is your job, Melanie, not mine. You’re the music critic, right? You’ve been hired to summarize and describe. I’ve done my work. I’ve written these songs. Now do your job or go to your room!
[RM:] I noticed that Dan Smith of the Danielson Famile is producing this record. What do you think he brings to the production? How is the end result different from projects you’ve produced yourself (like Michigan)?
[SS:] Daniel is an odd ball. I love him, but I don’t always understand him. This is what I like about this project. He’s put all these songs on their heads. He’s put them all out there wearing lederhosen. What he brings to the table is a cutting board and a bread knife. He cuts away all excess. I have a tendency to over-arrange. I fill the spaces, I think in terms of multiple voices, multiple lines, lots of contrapuntal melodies shrieking for attention. This is to distract the listener from me. Daniel has no patience for this. He pinpoints the real deal and puts it dead center.
It was a lot of fun to work with him. The whole time, he was constantly saying no and I was constantly saying yes. Or vice versa. For example, I would record a vocal line start to finish and then listen back and say, “This is not going to sell millions of records.” I was very demanding; I wanted to fix everything. He said, “No, it’s perfect the way it is. It sounds awesome. We’re keeping it. Stop sulking and sit up straight, young man!”
[RM:] So many of the particular situations you sing about on Michigan point to shared feelings: isolation, disenfranchisement, betrayal, shame, love, hope. How do you decide which specifics to include in a story or a song, so that it resonates with your audience, instead of seeming boring or insignificant?
[SS:] I think you’re talking about the balance between abstraction and detail. This is important, but let’s go deeper here. The best fiction is geared towards conflict. We learn most about our characters through tension, when they are put up against insurmountable obstacles. This is true in real life.
We come to be fully known, to be fully realized (as three-dimensional human beings) when we are at odds with the world. All good art magnifies this kind of exertion. Of course, as a listener (or as a reader) it’s far less convincing to observe these things abstractly. The ideas themselves (“conflict” and “pain”) look pathetic on the page. This is where detail is important. The particular objects of our life come to represent incomparable constructs. An untied shoelace could mean laziness or lack of commitment. There are endless nouns: an unpaid phone bill; a ball of bee’s wax; a halter top; an untuned piano. These things satisfy the senses. They evoke unpronounceable meaning.
[RM:] I noticed that “Vito’s Ordination Song” ends Michigan on a hopeful note. It serves as a kind of redemptive closing for an album which is at times stark and even mournful. Would you say that the song’s placement reflects your belief about the way sorrow and hope really balance each other in life?
[RM:] Do you approach your music as a “ministry”—something that you can offer others? Or do you make music because you feel compelled to do so in order to express yourself? Or is it some combination of those?
[SS:] The word “ministry” is so institutional and cold. I wouldn’t touch that word with a stick. But I do believe we are made with particular inclinations, particular gifts. I hardly think we chose these things, but we are not limited to them at all. It is both mysterious and genetic. I think freedom is a bluff. Especially in this country, we pride ourselves on the independence of the mind. But we are so narrow and mechanized. We spend our lives conditioned by society, working in cubicles, zombies at the computer, shopping in strip malls, franchise clothing stores, Starbucks coffee. I’m talking about myself here. We’ve lost our inheritance. We’re so uncreative. We’re Night of the Living Dead. All I’m asking is that we put off all this crappy fashion and get going on what we were made to do. Wake up, you zombies! Do you really want to contribute to the decline of civilization!?
[RM:] What are you listening to lately?
[SS:] Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.” Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” Alasdair Roberts “Farewell Sorrow.” These are three recordings you cannot live without.
[RM:] When you hear your finished recordings, do you notice the influences of any of your favorite musicians?
[SS:] I think it would be bold and pretentious to consider Benjamin Britten an influence. I think Steve Reich has influenced everyone from Willie Nelson to Justin Timberlake. I think I get a lot of ideas from when I was a kid, listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. I have so many mindless Prince lyrics put to memory. Of course, performing with the Danielson Famile has influenced me most directly. I’ve learned a lot about projecting my voice and using multiple vocal lines and getting the most out of the glockenspiel.
[RM:] I read that you’re currently working on other installments of your 50 States project. Do you think that your next release will be one of these? Do you think you’ll be able to portray other states with the same intimacy as you did your home state, Michigan?
[SS:] Seven Swans takes a brief hiatus from the 50 states. But I’m working on Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey and Rhode Island right now. So far, I actually find the disassociation much easier. I rely more heavily on research and the art of observation. I’m learning quite a bit of history. Like, did you know that the waste water pipes and the fresh water pipes run along the same tunnels in Providence, Rhode Island, and when there is heavy rain, it overflows into the bay? They have these beautiful beaches, but no one swims. It’s like sewage water. Like, did you know that New Jersey has the most toxic waste dumps? And they call it the Garden State.
[RM:] Are you going to be touring in support of Seven Swans?
[SS:] I haven’t been doing the conventional things, like touring and promoting. But it seems like that is all inevitable now. I’m packing up my suitcase as we speak. I’ll see you in Sweden.
[RM:] Anything else you’d like to add?
[SS:] Yes, I’d like to add that I sell Amway and if anyone’s interested in hearing the plan, I have a dry erase board and some markers right here.[Melanie Seibert works as a copywriter for a catalog and Internet retailer in Charlottesville, Va.]